KOCHI: What is it like to be a woman in our society? Helna Merin Joseph discusses this question through her artworks. Born and brought up in a conservative Malayali family, the most her family expected from her was to study well and then get married. When she chose to study sculpting at graduation, that raised many eyebrows — isn’t it uncommon for girls to do that?
Helna, who is now a lecturer at St Joseph College of Communication in Changanessery, mainly works on wood. “My family was worried about my career prospects as they were unaware of any opportunities in the art world themselves. While completing my masters in Hyderabad, the biggest concern I had was ending up in someone’s kitchen, after having to resort to a marriage,” the artist quips.
At the Lokame Tharavadu Contemporary Art Exhibition curated by Bose Krishnamachari, Helna has displayed six works, all sculpted and painted while she was in college. They portray the multitude of questions troubling a woman artist.
Helna loved asking questions, always. At school, she would wonder why there are different groups — the studious ones and those who score fewer marks, the fashionable ones and those that aren’t, the rich kids and poor kids. A student who loved to draw more than study hailing from a financially struggling family — that was Helna, and she was never meant to fit in. All her anxieties and doubts reflect in her artwork now.
‘The shelf’ is about her fear of being married. The wooden installation has a kitchen shelf filled with multiple utensils — the small world of a married woman. “Women are always expected to helm the kitchen in a household. Does she want to? Nobody asks her that,” Helna says.
Question Marks is one of her most prominent works. The world, especially men, get to ignore the basic chores in life that get the wheels of routine turning because they have someone else covering for them — a wife, mother, daughter, or daughter-in-law. On wood, Helna has sculpted colourful shirts hanging on a cloth line. The hangers appear as question marks. “The work asks multiple questions about gender, clothes and identity. How did the shirts reach the hangers? Who put it there?,” says Helna.
One of the best bits about Helna’s work is how she leaves the wood unpolished here and there. She never smoothens or reshapes them. “Though sculpting is my preferred mode, I also love painting. That is evident in all my works,” she quips. “When everything in the world is tumultuous and chaotic, why should the wood I work on be perfect,” Helna explains.
Working on wood is difficult, it requires hard work and tremendous patience adds Helna. “I wanted to prove those who said I can’t do this wrong. With each small works, I am proving them wrong,” she says. As a kid, we all play with tricycles. “But a little girl peddles into a kitchen when she grows up and spends her life there. Everyone expects a woman to settle into a married life filled with chores. I don’t want to,” she concludes.